7 lessons in poverty alleviation during the pandemic

How an NGO continued its mission to help the poor in unprecedented times

What does it take to pivot and innovate during one of the biggest global crises for a non-profit organization? For International Care Ministries, a poverty-alleviation organization working with the ultra-poor in the Philippines, it meant an assessment of the organization’s strengths, data, and resources; quick thinking and willingness to try new things to see if they would work.

When the national government implemented community quarantines in the provinces because of the pandemic, ICM’s work of training the ultra-poor to rise out of poverty had to abruptly stop. With operations at a standstill, people who had been making progress out of poverty saw their limited resources depleted and many faced starvation. ICM had to rapidly adapt to address the urgent needs of the poorest.  

One of our partner pastors crossing a river to get to a remote community to deliver much-needed food supplies during the early months of the pandemic.

In less than a year, ICM distributed over 14 million meals to more than 5 million Filipinos in Visayas and Mindanao. By the end of 2020, it had restarted new and innovative wide-scale programs to relaunch economic growth for the ultra-poor.

How was this large scale and wide reach of support and relief accomplished? Here are the lessons ICM learned on the job during the pandemic: 

1. Networks and partnerships pay off in unprecedented times.

ICM’s staff may have not been able to travel to communities during the lockdown, but its network of 10,000 partner pastors and 4,000 savings groups was already firmly established. Because of these existing channels, the organization was able to respond in ways that it was otherwise prohibited from doing so. “We were able to reach that scale and support so many people because the dependence has not been on us, but on our network,” Michael Coman, ICM’s Director of Strategy, explained. 

2. Let data lead the way. 

ICM has always been data-driven; it was a hallmark of the organization long before the pandemic. When community quarantines were imposed, ICM needed to know what the needs of the poor were, quickly and accurately.  Their extensive network of partner pastors and community leaders conducted regular Sentinel Surveys to collect near-real time information from those on the  ground. For example, ICM learned that 72% people now earn less than before the pandemic, and 43% had to borrow money.  This data informed ICM’s strategic response, and helped to direct goods where most needed. 

3. Even small things can have a big impact.

When dealing with poverty at scale, low-cost interventions are the only practical solution. ICM distributed packets of seeds with gardening kits along with food and non-food relief goods during the first few months of the lockdown. These seeds provided a sustainable means of food security for families living in ultra-poverty when they couldn’t go out to work. Within a few weeks, families had enough vegetables to share with their neighbors and even sell to add to their income. 

The seeds distributed along with the food supplies during the quarantine grew into community gardens that helped with food security for the ultra-poor.

4. Look again at previously overlooked innovations

Smart Start, a new educational strategy that was previously deemed too light touch, has been proven to make a difference in the pandemic context. Smart Start — a drop-and-go booklet to help facilitate early childhood education for ultra-poor families — didn’t seem to be a viable tool at first. How could something that didn’t have a follow-up or a face-to-face engagement have any benefit to the family? However, despite their reservations, ICM decided to include a Smart Start booklet along with the relief goods given to the families. The response was a resounding success, with 98% of families completing the first book and advancing to receive Book 2.

The Smart Start booklet proved to be helpful in helping parents facilitate early childhood education even while on community quarantines.

5. Test quickly to remove ineffective pilots

Since physical interactions were out of the question, one of the first initiatives that ICM tried out during the lockdowns was in the digital space: online messengers and chatbots. The initiative was immediately tested in the communities. However, it had little success because the majority of the ultra-poor did not have access to the digital platforms. However, REDI — ICM’s existing emergency disaster response system hotline — worked well in getting information from the communities and getting help to them as fast as possible because it used SMS. “We can respond very quickly and create tools if they are helpful,” Daniel Mayhugh, ICM’s COO, said. “If not, we go back to what we know works and we’re always looking for the next thing to do better.”

Through the data collected through the Sentinel program and REDI — the organization’s rapid response system for emergencies — ICM had been able to know the situation on the ground and immediately deliver supplies where they are most needed.

6. Model adaptability in staff and leadership

“We could never have forecast this situation, but we’ve seen the breadth of capacity of our staff in every level to change their day job and to change their functions almost instantly,” Mayhugh shared. There are new ways of conducting operations that include COVID safety protocols, as well as new reporting mechanisms, which means new training sessions. The staff and leadership learned to stretch their abilities and strengthened their problem solving muscles. The successful results ultimately showed just how strong they really are.

ICM’s staff going the extra mile to reach the ultra-poor communities in Visayas and Mindanao.

7. Stay focused on your mission. 

This challenging period has been a learning experience for all organizations working to help the marginalized and vulnerable around the world. Innovating for innovation’s sake will not work in the long run if the strategies don’t align with ICM’s mission: to deliver the right support, the right training, and right resources to help the ultra-poor help themselves out of poverty for good. This mission doesn’t change, be it in a time of uncertainty like a pandemic or even when the world has moved on to its new normal. 

These seven lessons show how ICM has drawn on its innovative, data-centered approach to find ways to deliver life change in the midst of the pandemic. Looking back on a year when everything dramatically changed, Coman reflected, “We learned that there is always a way.”

For more information on ICM’s work and research, go to www.caremin.com.

[Submitted by Stef Juan, International Care Ministries]